Unsung Auteurs: Stewart Raffill

March 10, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: wilderness action adventure specialist, Stewart Raffill.

“That was the weirdest movie I ever worked on,” Stewart Raffill has said of 1988’s Mac And Me, the colossal oddball misfire that has unfortunately cast a gooey pall over the director’s entire career. A cheesy rip-off of E.T The Extra Terrestrial that basically functions as a feature length ad for fast food giant Macdonald’s, the film has been famously used by Paul Rudd to prank talk show hosts, with the actor setting up a clip from his latest release only to play a scene from Mac And Me instead. “I remember being like ‘What?! This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’” Rudd has said of seeing the mega-misfire as a kid.

A scene from Mac And Me.

This so-bad-it’s-good, high-kitsch slab of silliness, however, is not even remotely indicative of Stewart Raffill’s body of work. And neither is his other most oft-discussed effort: 1994’s Tammy And The T-Rex, in which Paul Walker’s bullied teen’s brain is transplanted into the body of a robotic tyrannosaurus rex, leading to both the death of his high school tormentors and a spot of romance with Denise Richards. A bizarro minor cult favourite, the film was recently re-released on Blu-ray with the addition of several scenes of high-level blood and gore that were cut from the original in order to score a PG-13 rating. These two films, along with a couple of other cheesy duds (2010’s teen music flick, Standing Ovation; 1991’s god-awful sequel Mannequin: On The Move), are actually anomalies on Stewart Raffill’s lengthy resume.

Stewart Raffill

A true auteur in every sense of the word, the best films of Stewart Raffill (who was born in the UK in 1942, but has done most of his work in the US) are those that allow him to indulge one of his true loves: nature and the great outdoors. Raffill’s entry into the world of film came via his love of animals. “I used to have a company that rented wild animals to the studios,” Raffill told Slashfilm. “That was my first business. I used to do the stunt work for the TV series Tarzan. Then I got into independent filmmaking after that.” In an example of pure auteurism even more singular than, say, Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino, Raffill has made a relatively long list of films about people lost either in the wilderness or at sea, and then on remote deserted islands.

A scene from Adventures Of The Wilderness Family

The best three of these even starred the same actor, with the dashingly handsome Robert Logan appearing in 1975’s Adventures Of The Wilderness Family (this family fave about a city brood heading off for a new life in the wild spawned two sequels, neither of which Raffill helmed); 1976’s Across The Great Divide (which follows a drifter and two kids trekking through The Rocky Mountains); and 1978’s The Sea Gypsies (a true charmer about a shipwrecked family). Exciting, imaginative and enjoyably traditional, these are three of the best family films of the 1970s, and are fondly remembered by those who grew up watching them on TV and then later on VHS. “Independent family films with lots of animals and kids,” Raffill has modestly said of these teriffic movies.

A scene from Napoleon And Samantha

Before this “spiritual trilogy” (the true centrepiece of the writer/director’s career), Raffill had directed the late Dan Haggerty (who would find great fame in the 1970s off-grid-before-the-term-existed-themed TV series The Life And Times Of Grizzly Adams) in two little seen wilderness adventures, 1971’s The Tender Warrior (on which Raffill made his directorial debut) and 1974’s When The North Wind Blows. Raffill also penned the 1972 Disney classic Napoleon And Samantha, which starred Jodie Foster and Johnny Whitaker as two young kids who befriend a circus lion and then escape into the wilderness in order to protect him. “I was one of the producers on it and I had the pet lion on it,” Raffill has said. “I believe that was Jodie Foster’s first job and Michael Douglas’ first film as a star.”

A scene from Grizzly Falls

Though Raffill’s best adventure films were made in the 1970s, he has continued to head into the wild throughout his career, with the likes of 1994’s Lost In Africa (the title says it all), 1998’s The New Swiss Family Robinson (Jane Seymour and David Carradine headline Raffill’s take on the classic novel), 1999’s Grizzly Falls (Bryan Brown features in this actioner about a boy befriended by a grizzly bear), 2005’s Survival Island (a tacky shipwreck thriller with Billy Zane and Kelly Brook), and 2007’s Mysterious (an equally tacky thriller set on an island in The Bermuda Triangle with Antonio Sabato Jr. and James Brolin).

A scene from The Philadelphia Experiment

Three of Raffill’s most interesting films, however, fall slightly outside of the director’s into-the-wild auteur efforts, and, perhaps out of pure coincidence, were all made during the 1980s. Admirably ambitious and goofily entertaining, 1981’s crime caper High Risk effectively mixes laughs with action, and boasts an oddly star-studded cast in James Brolin, Anthony Quinn, Lindsay Wagner, James Coburn, Bruce Davison, Ernest Borgnine and Cleavon Little. 1984’s tonally-all-over-the-place sci-fi action comedy The Ice Pirates (starring a horribly permed Robert Urich), meanwhile, is set in a distant future when water is scarce and is littered with a slew of surprisingly lewd jokes. The best of Raffill’s 1980s output (and one of his best, period) is 1984’s The Philadelphia Experiment, a sci-fi time travel thriller romance in which Michael Pare’s WW2 sailor is sent forty years into the future, where he dodges the military while romancing Nancy Allen.

Stewart Raffill

A truly individual filmmaker driven by very specific interests and ideas – and able to deliver solid cinematic entertainments on frequently crushing budgets – Stewart Raffill (also a noted conservationist, environmentalist, animal lover and novelist…and the writer of the original screenplay for the Wesley Snipes action hit Passenger 57!) deserves a far bigger cult following.

For more information on Stewart Raffill, head to the director’s official website.

 

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